11 March 2013 ~ 9 Comments

Review: Writers of the Future XXVIII

written by Frank Dutkiewicz

Before I cut my reviewing teeth at Tangent Online, before Daily Science Fiction came to life, I shared my thoughts on the Writers of the Future anthology here at Diabolical Plots. WotF is a contest like none other in literature. The dream child of the late – and controversial – science fiction author, L Ron Hubbard, WotF is a contest reserved for the amateur writers of speculative fiction. Its judges are staffed with the icons in the industry. Winners of the contest have often gone on to greater success. Skeptical? A simple roll call of Hugo and Nebula nominees of the past decade plus is all the evidence you need. Many authors who now make writing their career , including the last two coordinating judges , made their first steps as a successful author winning this contest.

Because the Writers of the Future contest is so unique, I have made my reviews unique. It is the only publication where I assign letter grades for each story. I do so for three reasonsâ€

a) Because I’m a loyal reader.

I bought the first anthology when it debuted so very long ago (I was young then, I swear). With the exception of a few in the 90’s, I have read them all. Some of the stories have moved me, some have left me scratching my head and left me wondering on how they managed to be place in the contest, but most fall in that murky middle. A simple , I liked it , doesn’t accurately reflect on how I felt about the stories, but the letter grades do.

b) Because I’m a contestant.

I first started to submit to the contest when I began to review the anthology four years ago. I’ve done well enough to average about three Honorable Mentions a year. With the exception of one Silver Honorable Mention, I have yet to do better. But if the estimates that only the top 5 to 10% reach the level of HM, then I can reason that I’m not doing all that bad. The stories that have won have bested my best. The letter grades reflect my analysis of my competition.

c) Because they’ve passed the test.

Most writers who have submitted a story to a professional publication have a lofty dream of making it in the industry. Dreams that their names will someday stand with the prestigious authors of today motivate many, but there is a wall they must first scale, a note of accomplishment that a writer can hold up to show that they have indeed made it. The WotF contest has proven to be that mark of excellence that they have.

Scores of writers have known the contest opens a door that they have been turned away from. For most who have won, entry into the anthology is their first professional sale. It is a rare contest. If you’ve made it in the industry, you can’t enter it. It’s for the writers who have been searching for their big break. For a lot of past winners, make the table of contents is the beginning of greater things to come , and you need not look any further than list of Hugo and Nebula nominees for the past decade to see just how true that is. It’s the reason why , according to Kristine Kathryn Rusch in her excellent essay in this year’s anthology , the contest receives thousands of entries each quarter. Amateur writers have learned winning the contest can mean everything for their career.

So, this contest is our Bar exam, the dissertation to earn our doctorate, our finishing line of our marathon, the peak of our mountain. It is the final exam to our professional writers degree. With that in mind every exam I ever took came with a grade. So how did our graduates from amateur-hood do? Take a look for yourself†.

 

“Of Woven Wood” by Marie Croke first place, first quarter

Lan’s creator, Haigh, is dead. Murdered by unknown assailants. Worse, Lan’s wicker head now has a hole in it, and he has a headache to boot , an odd feeling for a creature constructed out of branches. Now his head cannot hold items, a dilemma that stresses him much. Haigh’s neighbor, Jaddi, comes to get Lan and takes him into her home. Haigh’s talents as the local apothecary will be missed. Lan’s role as Haigh’s assistant and storage curator leaves a hole in his purpose as gaping as the one in his head. The emptiness inside him forces Lan to reflect who he is, a question that is compounded when Haigh’s murderers return to find what they were looking for, the item that led to Haigh’s death.

“Of Woven Wood” opens as a mystery. Lan awakes confused. He doesn’t understand the pain he is in or how he received the hole in his head. Vague recollections of his master stuffing him with important items, while their home is being invaded, flash in his mind. He is more concerned about Haigh’s reaction to the missing items in his head cavity, and of the broken things on the floor, than he is about Haigh’s unresponsive state. Lan is a walking wicker basket. His insides are a concealed storage container. As Haigh’s assistant, he picks up the pieces of his life and assumes his former masters role as the apothecary of the town.

“Of Woven Wood” transforms as a story almost from the beginning. Lan’s character is convincingly shown as a magical servant. He is robotic in design with the indifference in attitude fitting the fantasy equivalent of a heartless machine. I found it surprising when the author accomplished this so successfully yet spent the rest of the story showing he was anything but. The emotionless creature at the start evolves into a Pinocchio like character. I found the writing sound – the smooth prose and intriguing opening had me very curious from the start. However, the plot lacked a firm footing for me to remain grounded. The story, and its protagonist, drifted as if they weren’t sure what they were or where they should go next. The first half of the piece was a lengthy set up of Lan searching to find himself. The last half hinged on a twist that came out of nowhere. The result was a tale that I found enjoyable to follow but with an ending that was flat and a conclusion that felt like a cheat.

Grade B-

 

“The Rings of Mars” by William Ledbetter first place, second quarter

Malcom is chasing his best friend, Jack. He has recommended that his long time bud be returned to Earth. Now Jack has taken the robot rover, Nellie, and like a hurt child, has run away and left Malcom alone on the red planet’s dry surface. Malcom has no reason to be concerned, until an unexpected solar flare warning puts him in danger. Loyal to his friend, but still feeling betrayed, Jack returns to rescue Malcolm. Malcolm uses the opportunity to explain why he made his decision, but Jack has his reasons for not being a team player for the company. He has found something, something too valuable to leave in the clutches of a heartless corporation to exploit.

“The Rings of Mars” is a good old-fashioned science fiction tale. The story starts off as a buddy tale. Malcolm has valid reasons on why he has recommended Jack’s recall. An accomplished geologist, Jack has spent all his time exploring the red sands yet has failed to find any mineral deposits for the company to use. But Jack has indeed found just what the company needs, water, and tons of it. Giant pillars frozen in the sand, but the pillars appear to have a pattern to them, as if they were a puzzle left long ago for a budding species on a neighboring blue planet to solve. Malcolm isn’t so sure but can see the benefit the find would be for the company. Jack is disappointed with Malcolm and abandons him again, leaving him for the company to find as he runs off. But while Malcolm waits, he discovers there is far more to this puzzle than even Jack has discovered. He is left with a choice; be a hero to the company or help Jack unravel the greatest discovery in human history.

“Rings of Mars” reminds me of the short 70’s sci-fi adventures I fell in love with as a youth. The slow pace of the first few pages ends up paying off halfway through. Mr Ledbetter’s experience as the editor for the National Space Society’sannual Jim Baen’s writing contest is put to good use in this tale. A fine mixture of solid science and astronomy knowledge supports a well-crafted premise. I was taken in with the dilemma the two men faced and was quite satisfied with the story’s eventual solution. Well done. The one thing that did disappoint me was the art attached to the story. I thought the tale deserved a depiction as imaginative as the storyline.

Grade A-

 

“The Paradise Aperture” by David Carani first place, fourth quarter, Gold Award winner

Jon has lost his wife. He is a photographer who stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries in history, the ability to develop doorways that lead into pocket universes. Two years before, he lost his wife inside one of those universes and now he is obsessed to find her. His ability to capture doorways has made him wealthy. Each universe is a paradise. One can step into one and not feel pain, hunger, thirst†the ultimate alternate reality for those who want to disconnect from the real one , and the perfect environment for those who want a place to conduct less than ethical business practices.

“The Paradise Aperture” is a well thought out and original concept. People and corporations are willing to pay him millions for each doorway. Jon needs the money to help him finance his search for his lost wife but is having difficulty turning a blind eye to what they are being used for. His teenage daughter tags along with him on his trips to photograph new doorways, even when she hates doing so. His mother-in-law begs him to stop, to accept that his wife is gone for his daughter’s sake. The government has threatened to put his work to a stop, concerned with the ethics of creating new worlds. He is running out time to find his wife and is beginning to lose hope that he will. He has one last idea, an idea that might bring unimaginable catastrophe.

“The Paradise Aperture” is Mr Carani’s first published work, a fact that I am having a hard time believing. The characters are drawn well. Jon is conflicted, short in patience and annoyed with the people who crave his work. His teenage daughter, Irene, is successfully written as a spoiled teenager of a single, but wealthy, parent , bored, disrespectful, and judgmental. The tale is written on a foundation of a fresh and fascinating premise. Who wouldn’t love to step into a doorway leading to paradise? Particularly impressive was the author’s ability to craft subtle hints that have huge implications later in the tale. Although the storyline itself didn’t knock my socks off, the exceedingly impressive crafting of the story did. I foresee a brilliant writing career in Dave Carani’s future.

Grade A

 

“Fast Draw” by Roy Hardin published finalist

Jake is about to be shot by his G-1, basic grade human, quick-drawing girlfriend. He has less than two seconds before the bullet reaches him. Plenty of time for a G-30 to down a few drinks, make his moves on the lovely girl seated next to him at the bar, and step out of the way. Now if he only knew the grade of the alluring woman seated next to himâ€

“Fast Draw” is set in a future where new and improved models of androids are created each year, making ‘new’ brands obsolete after a few years. Jake had been very important when he was relevant, but that was long ago. He is an anomaly, living way past his expected twenty years of life. At seventy, Jake is an antique compared to the G-100’s of today. He is slow, mentally and physically, to the advanced models, but is blazing quick to his bio-original girlfriend, Gloria. His new interest, another android whose grade he doesn’t know, is a wild card. She encourages his advances but there is something that doesn’t feel quite right about her. The quickly evolving events , set to slow motion , unravel as a speeding bullet crawls toward him.

“Fast Draw” is a story with entertaining characters set in a basket full of coincidental circumstances. Jake, Bunny, and Gloria are moving at wildly different speeds in a ridiculous offset of time dilation, setting up the first of many premise stretching scenarios. In the span of less than two seconds, we observe two people flirting, receive a history lesson on Advanced Platform androids, get an in depth report of Jakes life up to that point, and watch a blow-by-blow quick draw in slow motion. The cherry to this over-the-top premise is Gloria’s happens to wear a six-shooter on her hip. Despite the avalanche of convenient subplots, I found this story enjoyable to read.

Grade B

 

“The Siren” by M. O. Muriel second place, third quarter

Janie is awake, one of the lucky few in the collective human conscience known as the Honeycomb. The rest of humanity is asleep while invaders from another dimension known as the Grunge have taken over their bodies. Janie is a manipulative, bi-polar teenager. She has a habit of rejecting the status quo and rejecting authority. Her antagonistic trait may serve her well as a member of the resistance in the sub-conscious world of the Honeycomb, or her arrogance may bring about her downfall.

The Siren is set in a ‘Matrix’-like world. Janie has memories of a news report involving an ancient artifact under the ice of Antarctica and little else after. The few who have escaped from the clutches of the Grunge have the ability – or illness – to perceive reality differently than the masses. After wandering alone among the labyrinth of sleeping consciousness, Jamie stumbles upon the COP Phoenix, a base of operations occupied with Tibetan monks and mentally ill. She learns the Grunge hunt the few who have the ability to resist them, like the Tibetan master, Lobsang. Death is also possible in this subconscious state as one of a multi-personality alterego’s learned when they fell into the abyss. Survival and gathering others like themselves have been the goal of COP Phoenix but neither will win humanity’s freedom back. Janie preferred a more proactive approach in the real world, and won’t hesitate to do the same in this one.

“The Siren” is an imaginative world, one that stretched my range of comprehension. The story is a difficult one to soak in, but somehow my saturated brain managed to absorb it all. There was much to be confused about – flashbacks, mind-bending manipulation, mirrored personality images , it took me awhile to put Ms Muriel’s premise into its proper perspective. The large story does have a clear direction and outcome, but like the surreal world of the Honeycomb, it is one that the reader could find themselves hopelessly lost in and give up. The tale does have a satisfactory solution to Janie’s problem but does open up the tale to an even larger story. The conflict Ms Muriel introduced us to was only an opening salvo.

Grade B

 

“Contact Authority” by William Mitchel first place, third quarter

Jared Spegel’s job is to protect the human race from annihilation. So when his cover is blown in the Kaluza station weeks before humanity is set to make first contact with the Caronoi – an alien race on the verge of space travel , he must take a risky step by revealing the nature of his visit to the station commander. Someone has been leaking information to the Caronoi on the station, a clear violation of Alliance protocol. Earth is the newest member of the galaxy-spanning Alliance. Species deemed worthy are invited into the Alliance. Those who aren’t, are eliminated as threats. Humanity barely averted annihilation sixty years before, and Jared isn’t the only who thinks that extermination may still be in mankind’s near future.

“Contact Authority” is a tale of species under the eye of a real Big Brother. The species of Man is on a very short leash. The Alliance is a mysterious organization that takes no chances with emerging intelligences. Rory Temple’s grandfather was the man who first initiated contact with the Alliance. Now Rory is on hand for first contact with the Caronoi. He has decoded their sing-song way of communicating. Suspicion first falls on him as the leak. Not much is known of the Alliances criteria on what makes a violation in their protocols but leaking information to an emerging race is clearly a no-no to them. Angering the Alliance is the last thing Earth wants to do. Man’s fate rests on Jared’s shoulders on finding the source of the leak. But as he digs, the weight of two races fate bears down on him. Can he find the perpetrator in time?

“Contact Authority” is story with a premise I would describe as flimsy. An overbearing, overseeing, collective race of advanced aliens is easy to imagine, but their criteria of what they determine is dangerous I found hard to believe. Nevertheless, with that premise in mind, the actions Jared and his comrades took was beyond irresponsible. I can’t imagine that anything less than a full court-martial would be waiting for him when he got back to Earth. I will say though, the ending line was fabulous.

Grade B ,

 

“The Command for Love” by Nick T. Chan second place, second quarter

Ligish is in love with his master’s daughter, Anna. A war golem like himself has no use for such a command but he can’t determine which symbol is love in his skull. The homunculus in his head is becoming senile, just like Anna’s father, Master Gray, is now. The emotion makes life more difficult for the titanium machine when General Maul arrives to take Anna’s hand in marriage, and all Master’s Gray’s belongings , including Ligish , as his endowment. Ligish is the true prize for the power hungry General, but Ligish can’t bear to think of Anna becoming the concubine for this man. He will do anything for Anna, even circle the world to God’s mouth if he needs to.

“The Command for Love” is a steampunk story set in an extraordinary fantasy world. Golems, the homunculi controlling them, and women, are all under the servitude of men. The world is in the shape of a man with the sun and moon resting in each hand. The arms are raised and lowered to mark the passage of each day. Ligish is the last type of golem that was built long ago. He is far more advanced than any war machine in General Maul’s arsenal. Once Maul’s marriage to Anna is complete, Maul plans on installing his own homunculus into Ligish, but Ligish has no intentions of committing violence. He must find a way to nullify the contract the senile Master Gray has signed but that may require nothing short of divine intervention to overturn it.

“The Command for Love” has an awful lot of content in a few pages. Homuncoli, ghost rifles, a golem shaped world, and so much more, are thrown at the reader. Despite the fact I had to play catch up determining what the hell a ‘homunculus’ was, I was immediately taken in with this story. General Maul cares only about furthering his own goals. He made it very plain to Ligish that he and Anna would be his property to use and abuse once his marriage to Anna is complete. The first half was set as a wonderful battle of wits between a unique protagonist and an excellent villain. But alas, that formula proved to be not in this plot’s mix. The story took a turn halfway through when the premise went from extraordinary to head-spinning. I will not divulge any more so not to spoil it for readers but let me just say it became different to follow.

This is a story I wished would have stuck to the narrow premise of the first half. Where the second half had some intriguing characters and mesmerizing settings, the expansion of the story just seemed too much for me. It read like ‘Lord of the Rings’ might have if it were cut down to 10,000 words, an overload of twists and subplots crammed in too tight of a space. Nevertheless, “The Command of Love” does have a satisfactory conclusion, but the ‘happy ending’ it provided came off as a Pyrrhic victory for the main characters. I will say there is a good story in there, but finding it is like trying to trace a solitary wire through the spaghetti mess you’ll find behind your stereo system.

Grade B

 

“My Name Is Angela” by Harry Lang third place, first quarter

Angela’s place in a pecking order is set. She is a grade school teacher who isn’t expected to teach. She is in a relationship that isn’t expected to grow. She is looked down upon, a societal minion, a cog in the machine, a thing to keep others occupied. She wants more, but more isn’t meant for androids like herself.

“My Name Is Angela” is speculative tale of growth. It is a story that would easily fit in a Blade Runner universe. Angela is a human-mimicking machine who strives to be more human. The grandfathers that built her did not design her to be any more than a functioning element in civilization. But she wants more and only the Soul Man can get her more. Angela lives with an android companion, Bruno. Their mundane lives take a turn when Angela smashes Bruno with a hot iron when her ‘no’ for sex wasn’t a satisfactory answer for Bruno. Angela is like any person who tires of a going through the motions. She wants more and is about to get it.

“My Name Is Angela” is a human tale. Angela is like many people who have settled into a life and is now unsatisfied with it. Unlike the rest of us, all she has to do is find the Soul Man to tweak her perspective. And change it does. Her unauthorized reprograming is viewed like an epiphany for Angela. Guilt for what she had done to Bruno wracks her. Suddenly, the lesson plan she has given her children is lacking in content. She wants to make a difference in her student’s education, be a better girlfriend to Bruno, and strive to make a positive mark on society. But society already has a place set for her, and upsetting the apple cart is not welcomed.

Harry Lang’s tale of a woman who expects more in life is one a colleague of mine could describe as a ‘never beginning story’. For a reader who didn’t go through the effort of submerging themselves in Angela’s character, the tale would read like an ordinary person’s ordinary life. Many of the characters in the story don’t like Angela’s enthusiasm. Bruno seems quite satisfied with the mundane quality of his life. “My Name Is Angela” unravels just like any tale of woman who was too eager to jump into adulthood discovers , there just has to be more to life for her. Compounding Angela’s problems is the prejudice androids experience. They are designed to take jobs humans look down on, so are naturally looked down upon by their human masters.

“My Name is Angela” is an ordinary character tale about an ordinary character who strives to be more than just ordinary. If you were ever looking for the type of story K D Wentworth loved to read, I would guess this one would have served as an excellent example. She loved character driven stories and this one runs on the sheer strength of the protagonist alone.

Grade B

 

“Lost Pine” by Jacob A. Boyd third place, third quarter

Gage and Adah have worked out a fine life for themselves at the Lost Pine. The former camp is now their refuge from a world devoid of adults. It has livestock, supplies, and doesn’t exist on a map. Gage’s carefully constructed concealment is comprised when a thin boy named Monk crashes through Gage’s barrier. Gage doesn’t trust him but Adah doesn’t want Gage to harm the stranger. Monk was once a camper at the Lone Pine and is surprised to find it occupied. He is willing to do his part to help, and says he will go if not welcomed, but Gage thinks that there is something to his story that doesn’t ring true.

“Lone Pine” is set in a world where aliens have sent spores to cocoon the adults and injured of the world. An armada approaches and is set to arrive any day. With the adults gone, civilization has degraded into a ‘Lord of the Flies’ society. Those cocooned are not quite dead. Why the aliens have chosen to preserve most of the people on Earth in such a way is never satisfactorily explained. The story takes a slight turn when the aliens land and begin to take the cocoons away. Gage doesn’t know if the alien’s motives are noble or sinister but is sure those imprisoned will not survive without their help.

“Lone Pine” centers around Gage. He is protective of Adah. She came to him when her parents were first cocooned years before. Now the once-small child is blossoming into womanhood and he can’t help to think of her as his possession. Monk represents competition and a connection to a harsh world that he has protected Adah from. He is jealous of Monk and of the interest Adah begins to show in him.

I confess, I did not like the way the author choose to tell this tale. Monk’s voice is virtually absent. What he says is relayed through Gage’s interpretation , a backhanded second person perspective but useful for the author to show the jealousy Gage has in himself. The arrival of the aliens is an attempt to add an extra dimension to the tale. Instead, it makes the characters more transparent than they already were. I believe the aliens were not needed. The story already had all the elements it needed. A pair of kids trying to live while the world outside has crumbled, makes for a good story all on its own.

Grade C+

 

“Shutdown” by Cory L. Lee third place, second quarter

Private Adanna Amaechi is a long way from a ballerina’s dance floor. The talents she picked up as a dancer makes her a good candidate for a scout. The aliens who have conquered Helenski Five had swept away the defenders with ease. Small insect-like robots that slice through anything that moves guard an alien base. The army needs someone who can steady their heart, control their breathing, and survive a cardiac arrest, to infiltrate the base. All Adanna will need is the will to come back after she has died.

Shutdown is a tension-filled sci-fi. Humanity knows very little about the aliens who have invaded and altered the worlds mankind already claimed for their own. The army needs intelligence but the robotic sentries guarding the alien base are movement sensitive. An earlier attempt to infiltrate the stronghold ended disastrously. Their solution is to kill their own scouts and revive them when the sentries are satisfied the infiltrators are not a threat. Adanna is a perfect candidate to carry out this mission. She is a former ballerina, her career cut short in an industrial accident. The life-like prosthetic to replace her fingers are beyond her means but the military promises they will pay for the operation if she completes the mission. Ballet is her life and she would do anything to regain the luster of the stage, even if she has to die for it.

The setting for “Shutdown” is on a conquered planet. Adanna is edging her way into the labyrinth of occupied territory. Her suit is instructed to kill her before a timed alien scan can detect her. While she is dead, flashbacks , as if her life is passing before her eyes , becomes the focus of the tale. I confess, the tactic the author employed was a little jarring at first but the story became very compelling once I caught up to speed on what was going on. Adanna is drawn as a character who has little left to lose and much to gain by accepting the mission. Earth needs intel. The aliens have effectively neutralized man’s technology and converted the atmosphere to a poisonous one. Just getting a look at their foe would be an intelligence coup.

I have mixed feelings about this tale. I loved the action and raised-hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck tension that ran throughout the story but the premise was filled with holes for me. If the aliens were that formidable, how did the army manage to get anyone within a light year of the planet? If they could get a ship close enough to land, couldn’t they get satellite images from above? Those were just a couple of the issues I had with it but I still managed to enjoy the story.

Grade B

 

“While Ireland Holds These Graves” by Tom Doyle third place, fourth quarter

Dev Martin returns to the scene of the crime. He is one of the programmers who created the AI reconstructs of Irish literary lore. The goal for the UNI was to enhance Ireland’s tourist industry but it instead ignited a nationalist revival. Now Ireland is about to be the lone nation to divorce itself from the one-world government. Dev wants to help set things straight but he needs to reach his former partner , and chief antagonist for the independence drive , Anna in hopes of convincing her to leave the European island.

“While Ireland” is a story for you if you have a special attachment for classical Irish authors. In fact, I can see why this story was picked by a panel of professional authors, the allure of rubbing elbows with some of the greatest poets and authors of the 20th century would be like playing in the outfield in Field of Dreams for a baseball enthusiast. One of the first characters Dev runs into is iconic James Joyce. Dev and Anna did such wonderful job reconstructing the personalities of the long dead, that Joyce is every bit like the real thing. Dev recruits Joyce to accompany him. The duo follow a trail of other famous literary giants in hopes of finding the programmer-turned-revolutionary before the borders of Ireland close for good.

The opening to “While Ireland” is first class. I was pulled into the narrative, but like other early 20th century classics (especially ones written by Irish giants), I found the story convoluted and heavy with a message I cared little about. Of course, I never had much interest in Irish literature (an attempt to get through the first ten pages of Finnegan’s Wake is a nightmare I sooner forget) so a day drinking in pub with any of these characters is not what I would consider time well spent. A bigger problem for me was the premise and sequence of events. It seemed the only people Dev walked into were reconstructed Irish author personalities, allowing him a virtual straight path to find Anna in three days on Ireland when he had no idea where to look from the start. Either all the rest of the real people in Ireland thought it wise to avoid the computer regenerations or Dev was one lucky seeker.

Although I found the writing top notch, the story itself wasn’t much more than a man’s stroll through the green hills of Ireland. Dev met his goals, attaining them remarkably easily (especially when no one , except Joyce , wanted him there). I felt the same way much of the world felt about the Irish nationalist movement and their icons , let them have it.

Grade C+

 

“The Poly Islands” by Gerald Warfield second place, first quarter

Liyang is on the run. A Hong Kong tong (organized crime syndicate) is after her and the valuable computer chips she has stolen. Desperate to escape, she navigates her boat into the island of plastic garbage floating in the Pacific. The tactic is foolhardy because she has no hope of escaping the tong if she runs aground. Fortunately, salvation comes in the form of a mysterious man in a plastic suit. Adam is one of the residents of the Poly Islands, a refuge from the world. With no boat, Liyang has no choice but to trust him. She soon discovers she, and her stolen chips, have become part of a power struggle, one that will decide the fate of the Poly islands for years to come.

“The Poly Islands” is a rare WotF stories for me. The further I read, the more I liked it. The islands are ruled by an Indian Guru figure known as Crab. Liyang first believes she has stumbled upon a new age community but the people who live here do not act like a cult. The residents are divided into two camps, the Chinese and everyone else. Liyang rubs the Chinese wrong when she elects to side against her own kind in favor of Adam and Crab. The island existence is the result of an ecological activist solution gone wrong. The short lived nation of California attempted to collect, then sink, the trash with buoys designed to attract the floating garbage. Instead the experiment changed the nature of the trash, creating a bonded material that travels on the currents of the Pacific as one large mass. The Chinese faction is led by Madam Woo. She wants to sell the chips and use the money to conquer the solid ground of a Pacific island, but Crab has other designs for them. Liyang wants no part of the power struggle, only wishing to escape the inhospitable islands and start her own life anew.

The story of “The Poly Islands” evolves, changing from a knuckle-grabbing action to an elaborate puzzle. Crab does not seem like a Buddhist monk to Liyang. She suspects his altruistic motive’s is nothing but an act, but he does know more about the Poly Islands than anyone else. The mystery of who he is and the nature of the islands, and how they relate to her computer chips, is the true allure of this tale. Although I did like this story, I felt the addition of the final scene did it a disservice. The story had a fitting finale without it. Instead, the author chose to write in a ‘where are they now’ type of epilogue that made the story more of a message piece than a straight up work of science fiction. Without it, I would have likely made The Poly Islands my personal pick of the anthology.

Grade A-

 

“Insect Sculptor” by Scott T. Barnes second place, fourth quarter

Adam Clements is a talented insect sculptor but has much to learn. He has traveled thousands of miles in hopes of apprenticing for the Great Gajah-mada. He must impress the Hive’s director, the gorgeous Isabella, first. Adam is good, but to be great he will need to overcome his fear wall; the fear of falling too deeply into the hive mind.

The premise of Insect Sculptor is intriguing and inventive. The sculptor’s form a psychic link with a colony of insects, creating works of art with the mass bugs. Adam can do much with his termites, commanding them to facilitate an elephant as his entrance test for Isabella. He quickly learns his abilities are elementary when he gets a sample of what Gajah-mada’s troop can do when he witnesses a show first hand. The Great Gajah-mada is able to mimic people so well they are passable as living humans, to the point where his own director proves to be a mass of bugs that has become sentient.

Adam is first turned away but earns a second chance. Gajah-mada no longer makes public appearances, leaving the show to his star, Wasserman, to hold it together, but Wasserman lacks the control needed to keep Gajah-mada’s complicated designs intact. Gajah-mada needs someone greater for he is not long for this world. Adam has the talent but has never learned to break down his own fear wall, but he is determined , for the show, for himself, for the Great Gajah-mada, and for the love of his life , Isabella.

It isn’t hard to see why this one won the contest. Unique, full of lively characters, and with a protagonist that develops with the storyline. The only thing that I can complain about it is it gave me the heebie-jeebies *shiver*. Nevertheless, a strong contender that was written well.

Grade B+

 

A Changing of the Guard

The Writers of the Future contest and the speculative fiction community suffered a great loss with the passing of Kathy Wentworth last year. A winner of the contest (when the number following Writers of the Future was in the single digits), she went on to become its coordinating judge and editor. It had become her primary job, occasionally crowbarring a novel for us to read, when she had time to step away from her judging duties to write them. All the stories submitted over the past few contests had to pass through her first. The stories you read in this anthology, as well as the ones of the past few years, were part of an exclusive pile she thought were the best of a very big bunch. It was her job to pick eight stories each quarter for an impressive finalist panel to read. Granted, the stories of the anthology make up only 40% of the entries she chose as the finalists, but of the thousands submitted they represented a good cross section of what she felt were professional material worthy of publication.

Many writers sought the secret elixir to winning the contest. Kathy would offer a few tidbits of what a writer needed to do win , the speculative element needed to be on the first page, the story had to be character driven, and writers should steer clear of well-worn tropes (vampires, dragons, and the like). She would warn writers that humor had little chance but for the most part, it was submit your best. After reading the anthology over all these years I think I can finally see the type of story Kathy gravitated towards , the submissions that worked hardest at telling a story.

I imagined in her youth, a young Kathy who refused to go to bed without a bedtime story. I can see that love carrying her into adulthood. If you could tap into that childhood craving, she likely read your entry from beginning to end. If you gave her a protagonist she could fall in love with and a world worth exploring, you probably had her hooked. And if you didn’t deviate too far from your plot, you were likely in the running. Following the rules of writing that our often dictated to the amateur writer didn’t matter as much to Kathy as unraveling a premise she wanted to view. If you failed to appeal to her fairy-tale loving child hidden within, you probably never stood a chance , no matter how good your first readers said your story was.

Taking over the coordinating judging duties is previous Gold Award winner (WotF 3) Dave Wolverton (a.k.a Dave Farland). He has been a consistent finalist judge and a previous coordinating judge for the contest. His credentials are extensive , it can be argued that he is the most successful author to come out of the contest. Although you can still expect the winning entries to be the best stories submitted, don’t be surprised if upcoming anthologies have a different flavor to them.

On one of my writer forums that I often frequent, a sort of study group was committed to identifying what impressed K D Wentworth. Her words and advice were dissected. Semi-finalists would share their critiques. Honorable Mentioned, and others not as lucky, would puzzle on why their entries didn’t do better. They need not dig so deep for Mr Wolverton. The new coordinating judge teaches a workshop for writers. He offers free advice on his Daily Kick In The Pants blog, and has dedicated a few articles on tips for the contest, and here is my own Cliff Notes version of what he has to say on the subject.

The trope restriction will not be as confining, so for the humorist and dragon writers , submit away. But if you tend to slip into the clichÃ’ , expect an early out from Mr Wolverton. Marie Croke’s, “Of Woven Wood” (a story that opens up with a waking up clichÃ’ ) may have been a tough call to make the finalists list. If you like to write long prose, you may be in luck. If there are equally well-written stories, and Dave’s short list needs trimming, the longer piece will likely get the nod. But the biggest difference between Kathy and Dave is Dave expects that his finalist writers already know how to write, professionally.

Now I’m not saying the winners that came through Kathy first weren’t of a professional quality, nor am I saying those winners wouldn’t have been picked as a finalist for Dave, but I will say motivations between the two are different. I can sum up the differences between them in two sentences.

Kathy Wentworth expected writers to be able to tell a story.

Dave Wolverton expects writers to be able to write.

So, I am expecting less of a fairy tale quality in the anthologies to come and a sharper prose for the winning stories. I am also betting that the new winners will have a little more action in them but with a little less heart in its characters. Of course, I could be completely wrong. Writers of the Future Vol 29 is on the way and I can’t wait to see what it holds.

 

K.D. Wentworth

K.D. Wentworth

Kathy D Wentworth (1951-2012) was a fixture in the Science Fiction and Fantasy community. Four time Nebula nominee, WotF coordinating judge, and all around alright gal, She Who Must Be Impressed (my pet name for her , I already trademarked it so don’t even think of it) will be sorely missed. Her story, Daddy’s Girl, debuted in Writers of the Future Vol 5, and marked the beginning of an impressive career as a writer. She was the willing participant for one of Diabolical Plots first interviews (which can be found here) , something we are very grateful for.

I owe her a degree of thanks, for the Honorable Mention certificates I have tucked safely away, and for her appreciation for my quirky sense of humor. Although my bribery attempts were never successful, she made me feel as if she looked forward to receiving them every quarter.

9 Responses to “Review: Writers of the Future XXVIII”

  1. John Goodwin 12 March 2013 at 12:30 am Permalink

    Thank you Frank. Each year, I look forward to your in depth review of Writers of the Future. That you were a fan was obvious. To the degree you have remained a fan is greatly appreciated. I thank you. John Goodwin, President Galaxy Press

  2. Scott T. Barnes 12 March 2013 at 11:53 am Permalink

    Frank,
    Thanks for this generous review of the anthology and of my story Insect Sculpture. The mentoring provided to the contest winners is second to none. Many judges continue to keep in touch with me a year out. Good luck with your entries.
    Scott

  3. Adam Colston 12 March 2013 at 4:08 pm Permalink

    Great review, Frank.

  4. Dal Jeanis 18 March 2013 at 8:48 pm Permalink

    Great review, Frank. I’m sure Gerald Warfield and Bill Ledbetter, both fellow members of NTSFW, appreciate the kind words and high grades.

  5. Dustin Adams 15 April 2013 at 1:28 pm Permalink

    Great reviews – again.
    Like John said, each year I look forward to reading these. I was especially interested this year because I placed 4th in quarter 3, so I was eager to read what you thought of the three stories that placed ahead of mine. 🙂

    I’d like to point out a typo early on:

    “With the exception of one Silver Honorable Mention, I have yet to do better.”

    This is no longer true.

  6. Tina Smith 18 April 2013 at 3:19 pm Permalink

    Hey Frank!

    Congrats on your Finalist placing and good luck to you in the final judging. I love reading your reviews every year and see if our opinions match. Can’t wait to see what you have to say about the current volume (29) were my story will appear.

  7. Frank Dutkiewicz 24 April 2013 at 10:27 pm Permalink

    Thanks Tina! Hey! Would love to use this opportunity to exploit your good will. Would you mind if I sent you a private email? I have a small and simple request. Dustin Adams will vouch for me. My intentions are quite benign.

  8. Andrea G Stewart 25 April 2013 at 3:46 pm Permalink

    Love reading your WOTF reviews and congrats on making finalist!! Curious to see your Volume 29 reviews (like Tina, I have a story appearing in it). I think there was a lot of heart in the stories this year–several got me a bit sniffly. 🙂

  9. David Carani 20 May 2013 at 1:27 pm Permalink

    My reply is a little late, but thanks for the great review, Frank. So glad you enjoyed the story 🙂

    And good luck to you with your finalist story!


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